how neon art got red hot

how neon art got red hot

how neon art got red hot

Flash Sale: Neon Signs at God's Own Junkyard in East London - John Stillwell/PA Wire

Flash Sale: Neon Signs at God’s Own Junkyard in East London – John Stillwell/PA Wire

For William Blake, engraving was “the hellish method” of making art, since it involved burning an image onto a copper plate with corrosive substances. He meant “hell” as a compliment. If he had lived a century later, you suspect he would have had a lot of fun working with neon.

The gas was discovered in 1898 by William Ramsay and Morris Travers at University College London. Fourteen years later, the first neon sign appeared, adorning a hair salon in Paris, and soon became synonymous with consumer fantasies. In the century since, they have graced everything from sex shops to theaters, becoming indelibly linked in the popular imagination with the seedier corners of Soho, Las Vegas strip clubs, and film noir. Sex sold and neon sold it. Beyond the red-light districts, he may appear more politely on billboards or storefronts, but he’s always tried to grab the attention of passers-by to sell them something.

To make a neon piece, you must first melt glass tubes under a hot flame. Once twisted into shape, they are fitted with a high-voltage transformer and a vacuum pump: the air inside the tube conducts the electricity produced by the transformer, with the resulting heat burning off any impurities that are drawn out by the vacuum. Neon gas is then introduced into the tube, illuminated with its distinctive crimson glow by electrical current. (You can use argon and mercury to get an electric blue instead, or add fluorescent powders in the tube to produce other shades.) It takes at least seven years for an apprentice sign maker to learn the trade from her. As Yana Ryan of Neon Specialists on Hackney Road in east London tells me, even for experts there’s a one in 10 chance that the design you’ve painstakingly crafted will collapse under the pressure, and you’ll have to start over.

When Kerry Ryan, Yana’s father, established Neon Specialists in Spitalfields in the late 1980s, his main client base was Brick Lane restaurateurs. But coincidentally, this era would also see the YBAs establish themselves in East London, and one by one, seduced by the strange allure of neon, those artists began searching for Ryan.

Cerith Wyn Evans was the first to enter his shop, quickly followed by Tracey Emin, who soon handed out her cryptically confessional slogans on napkins for Ryan to turn into signs, works like Fantastic to Feel Beautiful Again (1997) or Be Faithful. to your dreams (1998). “I was in the right place at the right time,” says Ryan, who was paid in part in artwork for her services. Her business is today the starting point for the manufacture of fine art neon in London. (As with all works of art that require considerable craft knowledge, artists are now more likely to pitch their ideas to expert makers than attempt the process themselves.)

I Want My Time With You by Tracey Emin at St Pancras International Station - Tim P. Whitby

I Want My Time With You by Tracey Emin at St Pancras International Station – Tim P. Whitby

Today, neon is a mainstream fine art form. In London, for example, one of those works by Emin, greeting Eurostar travelers with the words “I want my time with you,” scrawled across 20 meters and glowing in his signature hot pink, has apparently become a permanent public facility. In Walthamstow, God’s Own Junkyard, established in the 1980s by the late Chris Bracey, who created signs for everything from Soho sex shops to Hollywood movies, has made a name for itself as an emporium of kitsch and sleaze, but also has produced works for tastes. by Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed.

Los Angeles painter Mary Weatherford has recently employed neon as a medium to recreate Titian’s Flaying of the Marsyas, while Welsh artist Bethan Huws’ ongoing exhibition at Thomas Schulte in Germany features a series of monstrous figures adapted from bas-reliefs. Romanesque, recreated with glowing neon tubes and across the city from Berlin, American artist James Turrell has created a permanent light installation in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery Memorial Chapel that changes hue in harmony with the setting sun .

But the use of fluorescent light in art has a longer pedigree. Bruce Nauman began turning written slogans into neon signs in the 1960s: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), done in a bright cursive swirl, pokes at the inherent pomposity of words by playing with connotations neon kitsch: a tactic. typical of Nauman. Meanwhile, Lucio Fontana’s “ambiances” of the 1960s created abstract neon swirls. And similarly, in the early 1970s, Dan Flavin was using fluorescent lamps to produce what he called “situations.” Although Flavin did not technically use neon lights, but rather off-the-shelf lighting fixtures, he is considered a pioneer of the art of light, and his work shows how fluorescent light can run the gamut from the profane to the sacred, or from shameless satire à la Nauman to great seriousness.

Untitled by Dan Flavin (with love, to

Untitled by Dan Flavin (with love, to “Phip”), 1976 – Kerry McFate

A recreation of one of Flavin’s major exhibitions from 1973, titled Colored Fluorescent Light, will be on display at David Zwirner in London this month. Curator Kristine Bell explains that Flavin wanted to “take handmade out of the equation” (this was the era where Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme) and instead use a “palette” of nine colors (including four types of white) to shape the viewer’s response. to the architectural environment of it. His “situations” are coldly dispassionate, but no less beautiful.

However, where Flavin wanted to hide the hand of the artist, others have sought to celebrate the deeply handcrafted nature of neon. It seems peculiar that a shape so associated with both the mechanical age and consumerist kitsch should be the result of such painstaking craftsmanship, a rarity that Douglas Gordon, another YBA grad, highlights in his current show, Neon Ark, at Gagosian. in London. For this show, Neon Specialists (who else?) held a live workshop at Gagosian’s gallery on Davies Street: “a special street for special people who want special things, none of which are really work related.” Gordon tells me. In the workshop, Yana Ryan and her colleagues set out to make all the neon signs included in the show in real time and in full view of the public. Mayfair window shoppers faced the neon-making process in all its dangerous glory.

Gordon first became enthusiastic about neon because he saw it being made in a workshop on an industrial estate in Glasgow in the late 1980s. His first work in the medium read “Faust 1224-1237” – a reference to the passage from Goethe’s play reflecting on the beginning of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word”) – and was made by the same “very old” craftsman he had first encountered. After it was shown at Glasgow’s Transmission gallery, he says, he followed it to his house, where he adds “it was fantastic making love underneath.” For Gordon, the “evil” side of neon is a big part of its charm.

Douglas Gordon Neon Ark Artwork - Lucy Dawkins

Douglas Gordon Neon Ark Artwork – Lucy Dawkins

At Neon Specialists, the Ryans’ pride in their craft is obvious. Pointing to a sign, Yana tells me about the “natural patina of glass,” a term one might normally associate more with a Giambologna bronze than the object she’s pointing to, namely a kitschy image of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. (Emin, Yana says, likes to watch the glass degrade as her neon lights age.)

Kerry Ryan himself is something of a neon connoisseur, and can tell you about every new storefront or theater in London where an old neon sign has been removed or, more happily, a new one has been put up. He is currently setting up a training workshop in Miami for new apprentices in the trade, with his own neon gallery and an “authorized place”. Ryan longs to “parties all the time,” but he also hopes to find the next generation of people who “have the gift” for the job. Where do you think neon’s enduring appeal comes from? “It just lights up the street,” he says. “Everyone loves neon, especially if you’re a bit of a nocturnal person.”

Douglas Gordon: Neon Ark is on Gagosian Davies Street, London W1 until January 14; Information: Dan Flavin: Colored Fluorescent Light is at David Zwirner, London W1 from January 12 to February 18; info: God’s Own Junkyard is open on weekends:

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